WHO GOES THERE?: Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc.

There's an old saying that paranoia will destroy ya, but at Montreal-based Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc. (www.zeroknowledge.com), they're counting on online paranoia as an incentive for people to acquire their Freedom privacy software, which allows surfers to maintain an untraceable anonymous (the company calls it "pseudonymous") presence on the Web. "The Internet is an open forum," reads the introduction on their website, "where everything you say and do can be monitored and archived. Freedom shifts the balance of power back to you, letting you decide how much or how little information to reveal online." The software, which is downloadable directly from their site, is currently available for Windows 95 or 98 only and costs $49.95 USD a year.

Of course, there are ample reasons for everyone (and we mean everyone) to be very concerned about their own online privacy, and in any number of ways, from companies illegally sharing personal information to hackers surreptitiously peeping at the contents of their hard drive. In fact, privacy issues have never been so pointedly concentrated as they are on the Internet, where personal freedom clashes so directly with commercial interests. The urge to use new tracking technologies in order to pinpoint consumer habits and behaviors is too strong for most companies to disregard. Add to that all governments' proclivity to spy on their citizenry, and you have a world brewing with suspicion, mistrust and allegations of Big Brother-type snooping.

Perhaps the most widely publicized and egregious example of corporate double-crossing was perpetrated by DoubleClick, the online advertising giant that attempted to merge last July with consumer data marketer Abacus Direct, a firm that had assembled buying profiles on 88 million American households, instigating a flurry of lawsuits. And in June, the Michigan state attorney general's office contacted four websites that it alleges have failed to disclose information-collection practices to consumers, utilizing a decades-old consumer-protection law. (Michigan is also pursuing DoubleClick in an attempt to limit what that company can do with users' personal information.)

"About the clash of individual rights versus commerce," says Dov Smith, Director of Public Affairs for Zero-Knowledge, "there are companies that are going about it different ways. What Zero-Knowledge has done is to build an infrastructure that enables private communication and also, in the future, commerce. What we are looking to do is to be the enabler for those kinds of relationships where marketers want to talk to 15 or 20 million people and don't want to be collecting unnecessary personal information, and don't want to be in the position that, say, DoubleClick found itself. We want to be able to come to those companies with solutions and say, there's a better way to talk to your customers."

The Freedom software works by encrypting all Freedom traffic. You can surf the Web, send e-mail, participate in chat rooms, post to newsgroups, filter cookies and reduce spam without compromising your privacy or censoring your thoughts. Normally, anyone handling Internet traffic can view the sender, the receiver and the contents of a message. By encrypting Freedom traffic, which passes through the Freedom network, each server in the chain knows only the previous and next servers in the path and nothing about the information that it's handling. The identities of sender and receiver are protected because no single server knows both the origin and destination of the traffic. Zero-Knowledge itself doesn't know the real identities of the pseudonyms passing through its system.

The main features of the Freedom software have been designed to ensure that one's personal information will be protected. Passphrase Protection prevents others from using Freedom without their authorization. Strong Encryption automatically encrypts and decrypts all supported protocol traffic that leaves from and arrives at one's computer. Private Routes travel through the Freedom network, preventing anyone from knowing a computer's physical location or where it actually connects to the Internet. Word Scanning lets one set the information that Freedom should prevent from leaving the computer, such as real names, e-mail addresses and credit card numbers. Blocking Unwanted Email prevents unsolicited email from reaching a computer. And Cookie Management sorts cookies into Cookie Jars(tm), one for each nym (pseudonym; five come with each sign up), allowing one to take advantage of cookies while keeping them separated by each nym.

AVN Online wondered how secure the Freedom code actually is, and whether or not Zero-Knowledge expects it to be cracked eventually. "We very much hope so," Smith responded. "There are a couple of ways to achieve security. One is called "security through obscurity," where you say, we have secret codes, no one can look at them, but trust us, they're good. The other is called "security through openness," where you say, I've created a new algorithm or a new product and I'm putting it out there so that everybody who wants to can tamper with it or try to break it. If they succeed in breaking it, if it's not secure, then I can come back and make it stronger. We are very strongly in favor of "security through openness." We have very good relationships with a variety of communities, such as the cryptography community and the hacker community, not in the sense of people bringing down the FBI's websites, but in terms of technology enthusiasts who are interested in this kind of thing. Eventually, we will be releasing the source-code, so that anyone can play with it and even build on top of what we've created so far."

We also wondered what interest Zero-Knowledge has in the online adult community. "We're looking at a whole bunch of industries," said Smith, "but we're especially looking at who is cutting-edge and who is early-adopter for this kind of technology. And certainly, on the Internet, the adult market has always been cutting-edge and early-adopter. Also, everyone's first inclination when they get a computer is to go to an adult site, and there may be people who, because they don't like the idea that their ISP is watching them, or the fact that an online profiling company is compiling their entire click stream, they might be less likely to go. This is a way for people to have full Internet functionality with privacy built in."

What about unsavory types, such as pedophiles, who might want to use the anonymity that Freedom provides? "We're like a service provider," says Smith. "If someone uses our technology in violation of the terms of service, or in violation of the law, we can just turn off their identity. Now, it's true that we would not be able to give up that person, but with a pseudonym you have an actual identity that all your activities are tied to. If someone comes to us and says, we have proof that this identity has been engaging in illegal activity, then we can say that that identity is no longer allowed to use the network."

Zero-Knowledge is also looking to expand the sphere of their privacy influence by developing patentable corporate-oriented technologies that will allow "a company to maintain marketing-type relationships without stepping on people's privacy." They are also developing online payment options where, using a Freedom identity instead of using a credit card, "you could make a micro-payment, or just transfer some kind of payment in which your identity doesn't need to be revealed," according to Smith.

It sounds as though Zero-Knowledge is intimately and conscientiously involved in helping to create a brave new world - of strangers. When it comes to privacy on the Net, that might not be such a bad thing.